Significance of the Title of the Poem London by Samuel Johnson

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Significance of the Title London by Samuel Johnson
London by Samuel Johnson

Significance of the Title of the Poem “London” by Samuel Johnson in Detail : London is a poem by Samuel Johnson, produced shortly after he moved to London. Written in 1738, it was his first major published work. The poem in 263 lines imitates Juvenal’s Third Satire, expressed by the character of Thales as he decides to leave London for Wales. Johnson imitated Juvenal because of his fondness for the Roman poet and he was following a popular 18th-century trend of Augustan poets headed by Alexander Pope that favoured imitations of classical poets, especially for young poets in their first ventures into published verse. In this poem of Johnson, Thales is leaving London because of the vices and follies of the people who are living there. This poem consists of 263 lines. The first 34 lines of the poem are spoken by the narrator or Johnson. For the rest, Thales is the sole speaker

‘London’ by Samuel Johnson is about the hypocrisies and follies of the people living in London and is described by the narrator’s friend Thales. In the poem ‘London,’ the narrator’s friend, Thales, describes why he does not want to live in London and wants to leave the city. He states that he is leaving this place because he can not stand to live with hypocrites.

Thales also satirizes the government in power at that time. He satirizes them by saying that they are bribing some common people to follow their rules so that others can also follow the same. He also praises King Henry V and Queen Elizabeth and describes the development they made during their reign in the city of London. There are a lot of things Thales wants to say to his friend, but, at this moment, a boat arrives. He boards on the boat wishing his friend happiness and success.

London, published in 1738, represents Johnson’s attempt to satirize the grubby world of London and also to rise above it. The poem is an “imitation” of the third Satire of the Roman poet Juvenal, which probably dates to the first century. In this poem, Juvenal imagines a friend of the poet, named Umbricius, who is sick and tired of the city of Rome and is leaving for the countryside for good. In doing what was called an “imitation” of his classical source, Johnson is not simply translating Juvenal’s poem, but updating it, finding modern correlations to the Latin original. Here, London stands in for Rome, “Thales” stands in for Juvenal’s friend Umbricius, and the Tuscan countryside to which Umbricius was headed becomes Wales. Exhausted by the filth, crowds, noise of London, and the difficulty of making a living as a writer, Thales (believed by some scholars to refer to Richard Savage, another hack writer who had become a friend of Johnson’s) in some ways expresses Johnson’s own frustrations. But London itself, published in a handsome folio edition, written in the heroic couplet form that to readers of the 1730s identified the high style of serious poetry, using the form of the imitation to signify its neoclassical aspirations, and hyped in the pages of the Gentleman’s Magazine (which published ads for the poem, and also excerpted it), is clearly an attempt to Johnson to get out of hackdom as soon as possible, to become a poet like Alexander Pope, making a good living independent of the whims and tight fists of the booksellers and magazine editors.

The poem also positioned itself as part of the growing opposition to the government of Sir Robert Walpole, who had dominated British politics since taking over as the de facto Prime Minister (there was no such official position yet) in 1721. Walpole successfully suppressed dissent through a mixture of brutality, bribery, and control of the print media. By the late 1730s, however, attacks on his regime were becoming more open and frequent, prompting new attempts on the part of his government to suppress dissenting voices. In particular, the Stage Licensing Act of 1737 called for theater managers to submit all plays for government approval in advance of performance. Prompted in part by satires against the regime like John Gay’s The Beggars Opera (1728) and the satirical afterpieces by Henry Fielding that had been very popular in the mid-1730s, the Stage Licensing Act had a chilling effect on the theater. In particular, the passage of the Act thwarted Johnson’s attempt to become a playwright himself. Johnson had arrived in London just that year with a half-finished tragedy in his luggage, a play called Irene that he probably imagined as a vehicle by which he could make a lot of money and gain status as an author. But in the aftermath of the Stage Licensing Act, theater managers became extremely cautious about new plays in general, and Irene was not staged until 1749. By using Juvenal’s Third Satire as a point of departure, London manages to critique the Walpole regime indirectly and through coded references, but contemporary readers, particularly those in sympathy with the opposition, were readily able to see how the poem mocked Walpole’s reign as corrupt.

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London is part of the eighteenth-century genre of imitation, or Neoclassicism.[11] The work was based on Juvenal’s Third Satire which describes Umbricius leaving Rome to live in Cumae in order to escape from the vices and dangers of the capital city.[13] In Johnson’s version, it is Thales who travels to Cambria (Wales) to escape from the problems of London.[9] Johnson chose Juvenal as a model based on his own appreciation for Juvenal’s works.[9] The epigraph from Juvenal, “Quis ineptae [iniquae] / Tam patiens urbis, tam ferreus ut teneat se?” (Juv. 1.30-1) can be translated as “Who is so patient of the foolish [wicked] city, so iron-willed, as to contain himself?”

The poem describes the various problems of London, including an emphasis on crime, corruption, and the squalor of the poor.[To emphasise his message, these various abstract problems are personified as beings that seek to destroy London. Thus, the characters of Malice, Rapine, and Accident “conspire” (line 13) to attack those who live in London.

The poem begins:
Though grief and fondness in my breast rebel,
When injur’d Thales bids the town farewell,
Yet still my calmer thoughts his choice commend,
(I praise the hermit, but regret the friend)
Resolv’d at length, from vice and London far,
To breathe in distant fields a purer air,
And, fix’d on Cambria’s solitary shore,
Give to St. David one true Briton more.

Who Thales represents is unknown, but it is possible that he represents Richard Savage, Johnson’s friend who left London to travel to Wales.

Thales’ reasons for leaving London and “exploring” foreign lands signifies that the corruption of the city stands for corruption of the country as a whole. Thales is not only leaving London, but seeking refuge in Wales, which discards the earlier image of England as the epitome of civilisation. The complete breakdown of morality is indicated by the phrase, “from Vice and London far”. The vices of the city are elaborated throughout the poem, which are then contrasted with the countryside. The “vice” of the city is mainly depicted through the ambition of those in power. This ambition, leading to bribes and unchecked crimes has resulted in the terribly unsafe atmosphere of the city. The countryside, in contrast, is a place where such ambitious men are absent and Thales can find “repose” by living in “poverty” as “once the harassed Briton” did. The phrase “safe in poverty” is interesting, as it condemns the unsafe and chaotic state of the city. The lines providing reasons for preferring the country over the city are immediately followed by the political decisions that the poet condemns. Johnson vents his frustration with Robert Walpole’s administration as he mentions the “pensions” which buy the people’s “vote” and a true Briton, who is a “patriot”, is punished while the corrupt “courtier” is made richer.

Thales reprimands the social and financial ills of London, referring to the increasing crime percentage around there including robbery, assault, and murder and the developing hole between the affluent and poor people. The sonnet additionally talks about debasement and eagerness, especially how individuals living inside London’s ‘curs’d dividers, give to bad habit and gain,’ all while ‘unrewarded Science works to no end.’ Simply put, the covetous high society let the city self-destruct for their own advantage, while those dedicated to ‘Science’ or scholastic pursuits direct their work of propelling human information or upholding for the poor to no end.

The Epigraph has been taken from Juvenal’s satire. It can be translated as “Who can endure this monstrous city, who is so iron-willed can bear it.” The first two lines set the tone and mood of the work. These lines depict the city life as futile. Those who live there cannot remain content after seeing the condition all around. Somehow these lines give a hint regarding what Samuel Johnson was going to write in his poem ‘London’. They also show what is going on in the narrator’s mind regarding Thales and his friend.

This section of Johnson’s ‘London’ imitates lines 5-9 of Juvenal’s Third Satire. In the eighth line, Johnson alludes to St. David. He is the patron saint of Wales. In Juvenal, the narrator’s friend sets out for Cumae. It is situated near Naples in Southern Italy, the home of the Cumaean prophetess.

The speaker says that everyone would like to leave London unless they are bribed to stay at the place, else they would prefer to live in Scotland. Hibernia is a reference to Ireland. The “Strand” is a busy street in London, close to Johnson’s house. Johnson’s speaker says that one will not die untimely in London until one suffers starvation. There is a strong possibility of this since there are a lot of malice, hypocrisy, and conspiracies. He says that in the city there are a lot of ruffians who can come and seize others’ property or they can lose their property to the sudden outbreak of fire.

In the city, “relentless ruffians” ambush all the time for a lonely passerby. The worst case is that the “fell attorney” (cruel lawyers) waits like a wild creature to latch onto his prey, a metaphorical reference to his clients. Not only that the houses are so congested that it seems they can fall now or then. The people there have no faith in God and they can mislead a person at any time. Who can live in such a place? That’s the question that troubles the speaker most. The speaker and Thales both wait at the bank of the river for the “wherry” (a rowing boat) that will take Thales to a sea-going vessel, while Thales is holding a little sum of money that will help him to make his living there.

Thales tells his friend that those leaders can rise by their sweet tongue. In contrast, he has a rustic and innocent self. He does not know how to deceive someone or do something wrong. He can not accept to be a beggar, nor be a spy. Neither can he live a life with no regard, nor can he die without being lamented. He says that these people do not have an ounce of social guilt. They are not endeared by social guilt but are such racketeers that do not let their future get affected by it. In the last line of this section, the speaker alludes to Orgilio, an imaginary character successful in racketeering. Thales says that the people who have been bribed by the government seem inclined towards Marlborough. John Churchill, first Duke of Marlborough, is referred to here. He had a reputation for avarice. Likewise, George Villiers, second Duke of Buckingham, squandered a vast fortune.

According to Thales, London used to be the land of the heroes where once King Edward III, who was also a successful commander, reigned and initiated the Hundred Years War against France. London used to be the land of heroes and saints. It had its grandeur once upon a time and used to be graceful, which was also praised by other people. But now the people of London have become thoughtless and Edward’s victory has dwindled. It is far from its sense of freedom and piety. Now, England imitates France which has won. They mimic the people who are living there. They are not better than a wheel. Thales says that their people have been degraded from their past glory. People from other countries think that the English people are no longer that strong, hence, no need to servile them. The people of England are no longer artful, valuable, fluent, and flexible. The bad rulers have made their country weaker in comparison to the foreign powers. Because of them, London’s industry is not able to trade more, as it used to do before. Everyone knows that they have tied the science industry. Forgetting their real duties for their nation, they are now singing, dancing, cleaning shoes, or curing a clap. That’s why “sciences” are compared to a “fasting monsieur”. The speaker ironically remarks that the rulers bid the sciences “go to hell, to hell he goes”. And if the people keep tolerating, then they are not very far from slavery.

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From the following lines, the speaker starts satirizing his country’s artists. According to him, English artists try to imitate the foreign trend in vain. They receive awkward flattery from the commoners as well as the rulers. Along with that, the speaker says the “discerning age” admires their talents for the stage. But, they venture on imitating others’ art and perform the borrowed part. It means they lack originality and creativity. Still, they are praised by the rulers. In this section of ‘London,’ Thales remarks about how the writers of his time imitated their master’s ideas. They repeated the old maxims and ironically in their works the speaker can find the old faces. The artists try to comply with the classical form in wild absurdity. They do not even look at things with their own eyes. Their lack of originality is severely criticized here.

Thales says that he will go to the countryside where he doesn’t have to care about these people. He will live his life happily. There will be his own rules under which he will feel a sense of security. The speaker says he will do whatever he wants to do there. There will be no crisis. That will be a place where he can live happily walking every morning and evening, listening to nature’s endless music.

The speaker wants to stay away from the follies of people. According to him, in London, some people taunt him and the people who present themselves to be heroes are the real stabbers, they seem to be the lords of the streets. They terrorize the people and kill others for the sake of money. These people seem like they are coming with light. But, the speaker advises his friend not to trust their beguilement. They are not going to give him any blessings, so as soon as he sees them he must close his door and go inside. The rulers are cruel, and they have no sense of guilt. They are like midnight murderers. Those men can kill one anytime and even at one’s funeral. They will behave as if nothing happened. These people do not provide help to people. They can do anything to raise votes and do nothing else. What they are doing is sinking the country back. They do nothing but visit their mistresses.

Thales wants to say a lot of things but, just then, his boat arrived. He tells his friend that time has passed and now he must leave. The speaker could have added a lot to his speech but the boat arrived. He asks for a farewell from his friend and wishes his friend youth, wealth, and fortune. In the last section of Johnson’s ‘London,’ Thales tells his friend he is going to rustic Kent now and find refuge there. The “wilds of Kent” can be a reference to a large wooded area covering part of Surrey and Sussex. He is tired of the follies and crimes of this city. The speaker will not be able to succeed here. That’s why he wants to leave this place and take refuge in Cambria for his own sake. In the last line, Thales says that this is a satire and animates everything he wants to say. On this note, the poem ends.

The poem basically describes the different issues faced by the city of London. Some of the issues highlighted by poet are increasing crime rate, corruption and injustice going in the society. The poet emphasises his point by view by giving some examples of the above listed issues. The poet is worried about the condition of London. Therefore, the title is appropriate.

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